Back in July I tweeted about a trip up to Stockport to collect some doors off an eBayer seller, and how I crossed no less than 16 separate bits of canal in one day. In fact, if I’d have taken the time to do this for the day before, I’d probably have equalled it – another eBay collection, this time in Brinklow, Warwickshire. This part of Northeast Warwickshire has just the one canal really – but it isn’t half a windy one.
If there’s one name that’s synonymous with canal engineering in this country, it’s probably James Brindley. Despite the glorious Georgian architecture of John Rennie‘s dramatic aqueducts, the proto-Victorian confidence of Thomas Telford‘s straight cuts, or even William Smith‘s immeasurable contribution to geology, it’s Brindley’s canals that defined the whole of the inland navigation era in Britain. It was Brindley that was employed by Francis Egerton, Duke of Bridgwater, who returned from a holiday in the South of France with his head full of the Canal du Midi, and appointed Brindley to engineer a complete artificial waterway between Bridgwater’s coal mines in Worsley, and the market in Manchester. Brindley, fresh from other engineering successes such as the Wet Earth Colliery, rose to the challenge, building canals out of the ground at the mines, in a pioneering swing aqueduct at Barton, and the price of coal (in true Smith-ian economic fashion) fell in half in Manchester. The canal had no locks and its width was based on the narrow “starvationers” used in the Worsley mines.
Brindley quickly became the go-to canal guru, taking on project after project. He used this business to formulate a plan for a “grand cross” to connect the four major trading rivers in England, and after extensive survey designed, and until his early death in 1772, oversaw construction of the Trent & Mersey canal (upon which he built his first lock, setting the precedent for the whole canal system), Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal (bringing the Severn into the scheme) and the Coventry and Oxford Canals, linking the T&M with the Thames. Brindley’s modus operandi was the contour canal, reflecting the standard of civil engineering early on in the industrial revolution. This required the minimum of soil-shifting, but inevitably the maximum of ground to actually cover by going around every bit of hill rather than building embankments, cuttings or locks.
Given the time it takes to operate, the ensuing water supply issues, and the general grumpiness of boatmen waiting to go through, a contour canal isn’t such a bad idea to avoid locks. It resulted in some fairly wild meanders however, and the Northern section of the Oxford Canal is probably the best place to demonstrate these. It now falls into two sections – the Northern from Coventry to Braunston, and the Southern from Napton to Oxford and the Thames. The most famous example is probably that at Wormleighton on the Southern, where the canal encircles a small hill on three sides, taking nearly three miles to reach a point a cutting would have got to in half a mile. It had the added advantage of course, of keeping those rough boatman off Lord Spencer’s land (and away from his game birds).
Take a look at the map above. I’ve shown Brindley’s original course in red, starting at Hawkesbury Junction north of Coventry, showing the whole, roundabout route that was completed between 1774 to Napton. As you’ll see there are some significant deviations from the current course, which was completed in the 1820s. The difference between the two eras is quite startling – 50 years clearly brought on major improvements in civil engineering, leading to triumphs like Telford’s Shropshire Union and New Birmingham Main Line. Of the original route, it was said that you could travel by boat for an entire day, and still be within earshot of the bells of Brinklow church, and it’s still believable. Must have been pretty frustrating for a boatman. New cuts like that at Brownsover, Rugby, must have been a thrill for such carriers, cutting out about 4 miles of canal.
For thirty years, the Oxford Canal was a hectic part of the new waterway system, but in 1805 the new Grand Junction Canal opened, a canal highway from London to Birmingham, without the vagaries of the Thames near Oxford, without nearly so many contours. Trade on the Oxford began to dry up, hence the improvements which cut 14 3/4 miles off the route between Braunston and Hawkesbury. The new GJC utilised part of the Oxford between Braunston and Napton, and that and the Northern section remained well-used. The Southern became unpopular and local until the leisure age perked it back up again.
That Google map is a best guess by the way: the old OS maps I can get hold of date from well after the improvements, and most of the old course has returned to the landscape. Some of it, like the section above at Sowe Common, is clear to see, and reminiscent of the large loops seen in the Birmingham Canal when Telford cut his new line through that. For some of it, as below at Brinklow, you have to resort to guesswork or what Time Team used to call “geo-fizz” – having a look at what’s on the ground. It’s a richly rewarding pastime, yielding up traces not only of long-lost canals but railways and many other works. It’s what keeps me distracted when I should be doing other, more important things at least…